Next in the Speculative Punk series: Capepunk, a deconstruction of the superhero genre. It aims to play out common superhero tropes in more “realistic” settings.

The capepunk genre is a dark twist on superhero stories.
The capepunk genre is a dark twist on superhero stories
Photo by Jez Timms on Unsplash

What is Capepunk?

Capepunk is a distant, more fantasy-based cousin of cyberpunk and steampunk. While both of those genres deal with futuristic technology and use that technology as a way to explore old tropes or real-world issues, capepunk does the same thing with the world of superhero stories.

Superhero stories started with comic books in the 1930s, and the genre is still popular today. The genre has gone through several distinct phases, and its attitude toward its subject matter has changed drastically over time.

Early superhero stories favored clear-cut lines of morality, invincible heroes, and one-dimensional villains. Under the Comics Code, this trend became a requirement, and comic books were squeaky-clean and morally unambiguous until the Code fell from power. Over time, these stories began leaning toward moral ambiguity, dark settings, and realistic conflicts.

2019 Joker starring Joaquin Phoenix.
2019’s Academy Award Winner Joker explored the social forces that created the DC villain

The thing is, you can’t really have a realistic superhero story without deconstructing the whole idea of superhero stories. When the whole genre is founded on people falling into vats of toxic waste or being bitten by radioactive spiders, then putting on a cape and flying off to fight a psychopath in a clown costume, any attempts at “realism” tend to seem a little ridiculous. (Yes, I am aware that I just mixed up at least three different superhero stories, but you get what I’m saying.)

Writing Capepunk

Capepunk takes that paradox of realism and runs with it, asking questions that tend to stay unanswered for the sake of the plot in regular superhero stories. Why would someone want to play vigilante? Why would someone need to play vigilante? What could possibly drive a human being to become a supervillain? Capepunk is all about poking at the holes in the genre instead of stepping over them.

Capepunk is a bit different from other “punk” genres like steampunk or cyberpunk. It’s subversive, but most of the time its subversiveness is focused on the genre itself. While cyberpunk and sometimes steampunk tends to deal with real-world social issues.

Comic book store.
The spectrum of stories created in graphic novels is much bigger than most people realize

Though, I’m not suggesting capepunk settings can’t be used as a way to explore different social issues. Doing so wouldn’t be new ground for the superhero genre. From Captain America’s origins as an anti-Nazi hero to the Mutant Metaphor of X-Men, you’d be surprised at how many superheroes had political origins.

However, you could make an argument that the trend of picking apart an old, established genre – especially one like the superhero genre, which has a reputation for being simplistic and idealistic – might reflect a dissatisfaction with the modern world. Older generations might have found it easy to believe in a superman, but these days it’s hard to believe in clear-cut heroes – or in a world where such heroes could exist.

Capepunk Recommendations

The first story that comes to mind when I think of capepunk is the web serial Worm and its sequel Ward. The web author Wildbow does a fantastic job of picking apart old superhero tropes, creating conflicts where nobody is really the hero, and making you sympathize with thoroughly unlikeable characters.

From Captain America’s origins as an anti-Nazi hero to the Mutant Metaphor of X-Men, you’d be surprised at how many superheroes had political origins.

If you’ve got a strong stomach and a lot of time on your hands, Wildbow’s stories might be a good place to start getting into the genre. The comic book series Uber, which takes place during an alternate version of World War 2, is also a great example of dark capepunk. While superpowers are central to the series, it doesn’t pull any punches about the cost of gaining that power or the horrors of the war that made it necessary.

If you’re looking for something lighter, the Renegades trilogy by Marissa Meyer is a great example of YA Capepunk. The Whateley Universe series, a group of stories by several online writers, also has several capepunk elements.

Superhero stories are an old and widespread genre, but a lot of the tropes associated with the genre are getting old. Capepunk is a new take on the genre that combines fictional powers with real-world consequences.